A basic call for humanity: the story of Alex Kelly

The events that lead to the death of a 15-year-old boy in a young offender institution last year demonstrate that reform is needed not to satisfy some left-wing notion of soft justice, but to introduce a basic standard of humanity.

In January last year, a 15-year-old boy was found unconscious in his cell at Cookham Wood, a young offender institution in Kent. He had hanged himself with his shoelaces. Staff tried to resuscitate him and paramedics attended before he was taken to hospital, but he was pronounced dead at 19:30 GMT.

His name was Alex Kelly. Here is his story, which is told in a case review into his death by Tower Hamlets Safeguarding Children Board.

Alex was in the care of Tower Hamlets council and was serving a 10 month detention and training order for burglary and theft from a vehicle. He was taken into care at the age of 6 after being repeatedly raped by a family member over a substantial period of time. According to the report, “The abuse had a profound effect on his emotional health and behaviour throughout the rest of his childhood.”

He became preoccupied with finding out about his history, his identity and why he was not living with members of his family, which led to increasing difficulties with his behaviour. Tower Hamlets provided no allocated social worker from October 2011 until shortly before the time of his death. Prior to this, he had eight different social workers between 2002 and 2012.

After sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court, the local Youth Offending Team recommended that Alex should be sent to Cookham Wood – despite the fact that his vulnerability meant he would have been eligible for placement in a small unit offering higher levels of support, like a secure children’s home.

At the time of his death he was on an open ACCT (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork) plan. This was because he had threatened to “string up” on a number of occasions, was cutting himself and blocking the observation panel in the cell door. He received formal disciplinary charges in response to these cries for help.

The Serious Case Review found that there were serious failings in the working relationship between the health service, the mental health service and prison officers in Cookham Wood. If mental health staff had taken account of the records of prison officers regarding his behaviour, his risk of suicide would have been assessed as much higher, which would have influenced the way he was managed. For example, they might have removed his trainers from his cell. He also managed to stop his medication without staff being aware.

The night he died was the first time at Cookham Wood that he mentioned the previous sexual abuse he had suffered in conversation with a prison officer. His observations were increased to five per hour. He hanged himself in between these observations.

***

Alex was the second young boy to die in a week by his own hand in a young offender institution, and one of three to die in 2011-2. There have been 34 deaths since 1990. The prisons ombudsman found two may have suffered bullying in the young offender institutions, were extremely vulnerable and should have been moved to specialist units. Evidence from CCTV suggested that even when staff witnessed harassing behaviour from other young people it was not adequately challenged.

There was a familiar problem maintaining a balance between care and discipline - or in the report’s words:

Assessments of vulnerability and risk of self-harm did not adequately weigh static risk factors against presentation or fully take into account the complex ways children can show emotional distress.

I speak to Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, to try to make sense of this case. He tells me:

The case is extreme: he took his own life - but it’s typical of the young people we encounter who end up in custody. We see a lot of chaos, neglect and abuse. We see police and social services aware of these problems but not intervening.

Once these youths offend, then the weight of the state comes down on them - but it’s the criminal justice system, which only serves to compound the problem. The punishment comes first: the welfare is an afterthought. It’s a problem which is only set to get worse as prison budgets are cut.

Neilson tells me that Alex’s problems were exacerbated by the fact he wasn’t in prison for a serious crime:

The people who come in for more serious crimes will be subject to more intense interventions in a bid to stop them offending again.

The state in its entirety failed Alex Kelly. While the Serious Case Review makes a number of important recommendations for Cookham Wood and Tower Hamlets council, one institution that isn’t held to account is the judiciary: in this case the magistrate that sentenced him.

Magistrates make vital decisions every day,” says Neilson, “But they have very little accountability. To some degree it’s understandable: we want to maintain the judicial independence of judges - but in the end they’re lay people and so we believe they should have more contact with the outcomes of their decisions, as it may influence the decision-making process in the future.

Neilson suggests nothing has been learned from the recent reports into these deaths:

The Government’s Transforming Youth Custody Consultation outlined all the welfare issues surrounding children who end up in prison, but then it just ignored them and went concentrated on education and secure colleges.

Calling for a root and branch reform of the way we treat the most vulnerable in our society is not some left-wing call for soft justice. It’s a basic call for humanity. More than that: it’s economically logical: every child like Alex Kelly costs tens of thousands every year to keep incarcerated. Basic things like sharing information better, improving access to mental health care and tackling bullying in child prisons are the most minor steps. That the Government would rather prioritise its latest ideological agenda is highly disappointing.

The Serious Case Review found that there were serious failings in the working relationship between those responsible for Alex. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.